The Burlington City Council appointed three black men to the city’s police commission Monday night, ousting two incumbents from their positions after contentious debate.
Of four open positions on the seven-member commission, the council only returned vice chair Shireen Hart to her seat. Two other incumbents, Peter Bahrenburg and James Dunn, did not win reelection, while a third, Robert Simpson, did not reapply.
Newly appointed to serve three-year terms were black men Jabulani Gamache, a bartender; Yuol Herjok Yuol, a social worker; and Mark Hughes, a community activist.
The sea change comes after recent allegations of police brutality against people of color. Two Burlington police officers were recently sued for excessive use of force against black men, leading activists to call for greater oversight and cultural competency.
The police commission meets once a month and is tasked with reviewing police personnel matters, including officer discipline; citizen complaints; and the department’s social media policy, among other duties.
The council received 10 applications for the four open seats. Hart was unanimously reelected by the council as part of a slate of appointments to a variety of city boards and commissions.
But for the three remaining seats, each councilor was allowed to nominate an applicant. Each person to obtain seven votes, a majority, would land a spot. Mayor Miro Weinberger was allowed to cast a vote along with the 12 councilors.
Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) nominated Yuol, who received 10 votes, while Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) nominated Gamache, who earned eight. Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) nominated Bahrenburg, though the council never voted on the incumbent.
The most debated appointment was for the last seat. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) nominated incumbent Dunn, who was just finishing his third year on the commission.
Dunn is a retired lawyer who spent 42 years representing the Burlington Police Department in negotiations with the police union, according to his application for the commission post. Despite that work, Shannon said Dunn isn’t afraid to challenge Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo during commission deliberations.
“While we need new blood, we need some continuity,” she said.
Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) countered with a nomination for Hughes, the executive director for the nonprofit Justice for All. Pine said he was originally going to vote for Dunn but changed his mind, saying he supports Hughes because he’ll speak up against the racial divide in Burlington.
Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) chided his fellow councilors, saying that removing incumbents “for no apparent reason” discourages people from even applying for civic service.
“Yes, the police commission needs change, and we’re doing that,” Wright said. “We just added significant diversity [in Gamache and Yuol]. Really significant diversity.”
Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) criticized Wright, saying his language “tokenized” the nonwhite applicants. She then cast her vote for Hughes, who was approved with eight votes compared to five for Dunn.
In his application, Hughes said his military experience equipped him with an understanding of a rigid structure such as that found in a police department. He said his goal is to "restore community trust to the department."
Gamache, a bartender at Manhattan Pizza & Pub on the corner of Church and Main streets, said he frequently witnesses the challenges of policing in downtown Burlington.
"Lastly," Gamache wrote, "as a 33-year-old black man, I have an understanding of the cultural and historical dynamics at play between the police and communities of color."
Yuol's application was concise: "I want to be the voice of the forgotten community," he wrote.
Watch the full meeting below; video courtesy of Channel 17: